By Bill O’Boyle, The Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — Classic cars on Public Square Saturday afternoon recalled the good old days in downtown Wilkes-Barre, while just a block down South Main Street, a glimpse of the future was revealed.
With developers representing Sphere International Services at his side, Mayor Tom Leighton announced details of a $28 million state-of-the-art hotel and conference center to be built at South Main and Northampton streets, long the city’s missing tooth in the smile of the downtown’s resurgence.
“Today’s announcement marks a momentous day for the City of Wilkes-Barre and the South Main Street Business District,” Leighton said. “Over the past 12 years, my administration has worked tirelessly to reinvigorate our downtown from years of decline. The city’s new attraction will greatly benefit the existing downtown businesses, including Movies 14 and the many neighboring shops and restaurants, as well as bring employment opportunities to the downtown.”
Leighton said the city has now reached “an exciting time of exponential growth.”
According to Alex Belavitz, president/CEO of Facility Design & Development, Ltd. with offices in New York City and Scranton, the project will be a 10- to 12-story mixed-use building with a 100-room hotel serving as the anchor. Belavitz said there will be 17,000 square feet of banquet space and six floors of housing — four floors of rental units and the top two floors will have condominiums. Thre will be some retail stores as well, Belavitz said.
Two representatives of Sphere International, headquartered in Mumbai, India, attended the announcement — Hitesh and Suresh Patel. Belavitz said the $28 million project is being privately financed. He said the groundbreaking for the project will occur in spring 2016.
“We’ve done much larger projects in bigger cities like New York and Fort Myers,” Belavitz said. “But it is much more personally satisfying to announce a project like this here in the backyard.”
The project will be constructed on several vacant lots owned by the city. Sphere International has agreed to purchase that land from the city for $500,000. City Council will vote on the agreement this week.
The city-owned properties at 69, 71 and 73-75 S. Main St. are within a Keystone Opportunity Zone that provides tax breaks. According to city documents, “depending on the situation, the tax burden may be reduced to zero through exemptions, deductions, abatement and credits.” The KOZ designation runs through 2025.
Leighton declared an emergency on Oct. 31, 2013 and the city sought bids for demolition of its structures that were in danger of collapse. Two privately owned buildings located in the string of properties were left standing. Place One at the Hollywood, a dress and gown store at 67 S. Main St., closed and relocated to Scranton. The Frank Clark Jeweler store at 63 S. Main St. shut down temporarily for the demolition and reopened, but closed later later on.
Belavitz said Sphere International has negotiated agreements with owners of both buildings. He said the developer has “site control” agreements for both properties.
“We are going to try to save both of the buildings and incorporate them into the design/construction of the hotel/convention center,” Belavitz said. “At the very least, we intend to preserve the facades of both buildings.”
That was good news for Tony Brooks, chairman of the Wilkes-Barre Preservation Society and a candidate for City Council.
“This is excellent news that we are expanding the tax base,” Brooks said. “I am happy to hear that the developer plans to incorporate these two historical buildings into the plan.”
Gus Genetti, who has owned and operated the Best Western Genetti Hotel and Conference Center on East Market Street for 53 years, described Saturday’s announcement as “exciting” for the downtown.
“As a citizen of Wilkes-Barre, I find the project to be very exciting news,” Genetti said. “It’s always good to see significant investment in the downtown.”
But Genetti said there are already too many hotel rooms in Wilkes-Barre. Genetti’s is the only hotel in the downtown since the former Ramada Inn was sold to King’s College and transformed into classroom space and student housing.
“But I’m sure they know what they are doing,” Genetti said of the developers. “They’re the professionals.”
Leighton said the multi-use facility will be a “catalytic investment” for the South Main Street corridor that will greatly benefit the existing businesses and the nearby Wilkes University campus. Wilkes President Patrick Leahy said the conference center will offer versatile options for conferences, lectures, forums, receptions and other events hosted by the university.
“With its potential for aiding economic development by drawing more visitors and people doing business, we anticipate that this project could transform the city,” Leahy said.
Leighton said an announcement will be made soon on the hotel management company. He said he anticipates the new center will host regional and statewide meetings and conferences.
“The facility will be the tallest building built in the downtown since the 1970s,” Leighton said. “It will be a great addition to the city’s skyline.”
Belavitz said his company’s research showed that the South Main and Northampton intersection is the second most significant intersection in the city — Public Square being the first.
Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, said Saturday’s announcement is a validation of the overall economic development strategy implemented in the downtown over the last 10 years.
“Somebody today announced that they are making a $28 million investment in downtown Wilkes-Barre,” Newman said. “This section really is the hinge that links a lot of the downtown. We wouldn’t be standing here today is it weren’t for the movie theater complex across the street and the development of the second block of South Main Street by Wilkes University.”
Newman said there has been a lot of residential development going on in the city over the last few years, bringing more residents to the downtown. He said the multi-faceted development has been progressing and the city is becoming a destination for people seeking entertainment, diverse dining, business and a place to live that is within walking distant to all.
Joining Leighton for the announcement were members of City Council, Luzerne County Council, state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski and several business leaders.